Versus: The Weakerthans – ‘Left and Leaving’ vs ‘Reunion Tour’

Formed in 1997 by vocalist John K. Samson after he left Propagandhi, The Weakerthans remain intractably linked with their home city of Winnipeg, spinning tales of local characters, bars and past-times. They went on hiatus in 2014, leaving a legacy that includes four of the finest indie-rock records imaginable.

Having just released their new EP, ‘Calico’ – and knowing they’re big fans of the Canadian indie rockers – we tracked down the elusive and mysterious BarCreeps’ and bassist Railslide’s take on his favourite Weakerthans’ album.

In the following ‘Versus’, Already Heard’s Rob Mair wil be championing 2000’s seminal ‘Left and Leaving’, with Railslide advocating for 2007’s swansong, ‘Reunion Tour’.

Left and Leaving (by Rob Mair)

In the words of noted American psychiatrist David Viscott, “Lists are a way of trying to get through the day.”

‘Left and leaving’ is choc-full of lists; the unwanted items in a garage sale; an itinerary of objects to bring for a covert tear-up against society; the remaining goods owned by a mechanic school drop-out after his suicide. Each a testament to the struggle of getting through the day, yet forever embedded in place and time.

To this day, Samson remains a peerless lyricist – indeed, last year’s solo ‘Winter Wheat’ is a masterclass in storytelling – but it’s on ‘Left and Leaving’ that his poetic voice really jumped to the fore. Whether he’s transporting you to the urban streets of Winnipeg on the title track, or the rolling Manitoba tundra on the heartbreaking ‘Elegy for Elsabet’ (which I remain convinced is about a blind girl), every song has a setting and a purpose.

Quite why an album set in such a specific place – and certainly a product of its entirely alien environment – should leave such a marked impact on a 19-year-old journalism student in Southampton remains one of life’s mysteries. But it did. And it’s still an album that I return to time and again.

That ‘Left and Leaving’ is a timeless record is unquestionable. However, the challenges faced by the subjects of ‘Exiles Among You’ and ‘History of the Defeated’ are more perhaps even more relevant today than 15 years ago. Male suicide rates, for example, continue to rise, and levels of poverty are relatively unmoved in 15 years. Samson captures this futility and struggle for life when the daily grind consists of spare change, blank ATMs and stolen goods.

Yet there’s a poetic beauty to Samson’s tales that is never heavy-handed or manipulating. There are no caricatures on ‘Left and Leaving’, with each song a real and relatable insight; a look behind the eyes into someone’s soul. As he grew as a songwriter, these fictional characters were replaced by real-life people and genuine stories, yet they never lost their humanity. Just on ‘Left and Leaving’, when it could be you willing those traffic lights to change, it hits home that little bit harder.

Reunion Tour (by BarCreeps’ Railslide)

I was originally asked to review ‘Reunion Tour’ for a magazine called Plan B. I’d loved every Weakerthans album before it and I felt mildly subversive getting a band that were so unabashedly melodic – and male – in the magazine, so I felt good.

On the first listen to ‘Reunion Tour’ my world crumbled. I wanted those dynamic guitar riffs that hoisted Samson’s vocals atop their shoulders to an unparalleled level of brilliance. But they weren’t there for me. This felt so… safe, too well-rounded, lacking in edge. I panned it.

And yet, over time, ‘Reunion Tour’ is the album I’ve turned to more than any from the band, making this piece something of penance for my sins. As the album became familiar to me and the subtlety of the arrangements bore fruit, I got as close to falling in love with an album as is possible. For nothing else, ‘Tournament Of Hearts’ crystallised the march through time so simply as Sampson lamented “Why can’t I ever stop/Where I want to stay?” within a deliciously paced curling (the sport) metaphor.

Part of the reason this is so powerful is because, even for The Weakerthans, ‘Reunion Tour’ cuts to the chase. It’s less gilded than its predecessors. Take ‘Sun In An Empty Room’, where the song title alone sits as poetically as it does philosophically. At the time I remember dismissing it as a Travelling Wilburys’ pastiche. I was so wrong (and I probably only made the comment because I’d newly discovered the Travelling Wilburys and heard some similarities in the harmonies). Even in my rage though, I still loved the song’s keyboard solo – still do – its’ so simple and beautiful.

With it being such a succinct collection of songs it’s also their most visually evocative. For example, the snapshot of sunlight in empty places is still one I consider occasionally and smile about. Think about all the empty rooms that are flooded with light each day, each one potentially a masterpiece.

The playfulness was also something that’s stuck with me. The fact that ‘Sun In An Empty Room’ was followed by ‘Night Windows’ – both of these song titles being about ‘not seeing’ – makes me chuckle. Should a track-listing make the listener chuckle? It’s probably an ‘in joke’ for no one but me, but that shows the band’s ability to make personal connections with the listener.

Yet it also felt like ‘Reunion Tour’ was also saying goodbye. Listening to ‘Bigfoot’, with its simple perfection and Samson’s soft story telling over solo acoustic guitar and some modest brass explains why his solo return was inevitable. Leaving something like this to stand alone within a Weakerthans album is borderline irresponsible, while his path needed to turn to further, more personal, reflections.

So, while the current absence of The Weakerthans is sad, they are still with us through Samson’s words. ‘Reunion Tour’ closes with ‘Utilities’ and the lyric ‘Seems the most I have to offer/doesn’t offer much… make this something somebody can use’. It seems clear that it wouldn’t be fair for Samson to take his bandmates with him in the next steps of his journey, adding to the poignancy of this impeccable album.

Railgrind plays bass in BarCreeps and writes for numerous punk rock music magazines and websites.

BarCreeps EP by BarCreeps is out now on Dirty Sushi Records.

BarCreeps links: Facebook|Twitter|Bandcamp

John K. Samson plays England in May. ‘Winter Wheat’ is out now on Anti-.

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